MERCHANT OF VENICE: Review Roundup
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, directed by Daniel Sullivan, began performances for Shakespeare in the Park on Saturday, June 12. The Public Theater began Shakespeare in the Park performances of A Winter's Tale, directed by Michael Greif on June 9. Both shows will play in repertory through Sunday, August 1 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE company features Happy Anderson, Gerry Bamman, Francois Battiste, Liza J. Bennett, Tyler Caffall, Cary Donaldson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Luke Forbes, Bryce Gill, Shalita Grant, Jade Hawk, Bill Heck, Tia James, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Byron Jennings, Kelsey Kurz, Heather Lind, Hamish Linklater, BrIan MacDonald, Dorien Makhloghi, Jesse L. Martin, Nyambi Nyambi, Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Matthew Rauch, Joe Short, Richard Topol and Max Wright.
Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park at 1 p.m. the day of the show. This summer, The Public Theater will again offer free tickets through Virtual Ticketing, available at www.shakespeareinthepark.org.
Ben Brantley, The New York Times: "At the end of the first of half of Daniel Sullivan's marvelous new production of "The Merchant of Venice," at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Shylock the moneylender can be found loudly lamenting his recent losses...That Shylock and the man playing him are not allowed to run away with this "Merchant" - whose many virtues include a smashing break-out performance by Lily Rabe as Portia and what may be the finest supporting cast ever assembled for Shakespeare in the Park - is no mean accomplishment. Mr. Pacino has seldom met a play or movie he couldn't dominate, for better or worse....Yes, it would seem Mr. Sullivan has given us a "Merchant" for the age of Wall Street bubble boomers."
Sam Thielman, Variety: "If it sounds snide to say that helmer Daniel Sullivan's "Merchant of Venice" is brilliant except that the director misunderstands Shylock, it shouldn't. How often does the famous villain appear, anyway? He has some of the biggest moments in the play -- bigger in this production because he's being played by Al Pacino -- but Shakespeare's script is about lovers. Sullivan's production rightly focuses on the tentative love triangle between Bassanio (our layabout hero), his doting friend Antonio, and the object of his affections, Portia. Sullivan handles these relationships with such admirable subtlety that the play shines."
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: "In a rare stage appearance -- his first at the Delacorte Theater -- Al Pacino is affectingly understated (for Al Pacino). On the whole, the Shakespeare in the Park production that just opened is zippy and entertaining -- downright frothy, at times...Which is great, except that the play is "The Merchant of Venice." Though technically a comedy, it's one where the dark cloud often obscures the silver lining...'All that glitters is not gold,' goes one of the play's most famous lines. Indeed: This appealing production glitters, but without weight, it's merely gold-plated."
Peter Marks, The Washington Post: "...while this "Merchant" by no means casts this Shylock as a good man, it offers the most compelling argument I've ever seen for him as neither hero nor villain: just a man driven to the edge by torturous grievance. Pacino played the character in a 2004 movie, but the stage portrayal cuts deeper...In an evening of smooth lead performances, a few other silky ones deserve mention, among them Jean-Baptiste's ultra-efficient Nerissa and Jennings's surprisingly vulnerable Antonio. The production itself glides confidently from subplot to subplot, showing us how the various narrative developments -- the contest for Portia's hand, the campaign to shore up Bassanio's debts, the settling of Shylock's claims -- are affairs that reduce human relations to mere transactions. In the atmosphere of Sullivan's poignant "Merchant," it's the currency of the heart that becomes ever more devalued."
Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: "Bottom Line: Al Pacino's mesmerizing star turn as Shylock dominates this darkly tinged production of Shakespeare's problematic play. Al Pacino famously spends years obsessing on the Shakespearean roles he takes on, but the results pay off. Such is the case with his Shylock in the Central Park production of the Bard's still-controversial "The Merchant of Venice." Although his performance in the 2004 film often came across as mannered, his current stage rendition, while still possessing self-conscious qualities, is undeniably mesmerizing. Humanizing the character by bringing his pain and anguish to the fore, Pacino is the standout of director Daniel Sullivan's intelligent and thoughtful revival, which naturally has sparked a ticket frenzy for its limited summer run and talks about a possible Broadway transfer."
The headlines belong to Al Pacino's harrowing yet unusually restrained Shylock, and rightly so. But the other news on the Central Park rialto is that "The Merchant of Venice," arguably the most disturbing of Shakespeare's so-called comedies, has been honored for both its gripping unpleasantness and its ripping entertainment value by director Daniel Sullivan.
Linda Winer, Newsday: "'Merchant,' presented as an experiment in alternating repertory with "The Winter's Tale" through Aug. 1, has some comic missteps from the summer's resident company. Overall, however, this late-19th-century stock-market update - staged on Mark Wendland's simple yet sophisticated set of concentric circles and metal grates - confronts and binds the ethical disconnect between the merry Venetian gentiles and their cruelty to the vengeful Jewish moneylender."
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: "A hearty and approving Whoo-ah! to Al Pacino, Lily Rabe and Daniel Sullivan - stars and director of Shakespeare in the Park's new version of 'The Merchant of Venice.' Now open at the Delacorte, the production is eloquently acted and crafted and balances the play's light and dark tones, along with its stinging anti-Semitism. The handsome design work is by Mark Wendland (scenery), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Mark Posner (lighting)."
Jocelyn Noveck, CBS4: "...a disheveled, agonized Shylock insists he will hold the unfortunate merchant to his unseemly bargain. Antonio, he says, has disgraced him, mocked him, laughed at him, and why? Because he is a Jew. "Hath not a Jew eyes?" Shylock asks. "Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? .... If you prick us, do we not bleed?" If there's an ounce of sympathy to be found in this villain, people have found it here. Is the speech an eloquent plea for tolerance, or merely a spiteful claim to an ugly vengeance? The debate is at the heart of the broader question surrounding the play: Just how anti-Semitic is it? That question, of course, has long plagued any production of this play. And to judge from the occasional gasps and shaking heads in the audience at the Delacorte Theater, "The Merchant of Venice" has not lost its ability to shock."
Erik Haagensen, Back Stage: "First things first: I've never been much able to stomach "The Merchant of Venice," not when I first read it in high school nor when I first saw it (in 1973 on TV, starring the husband-and-wife team of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright). I'm always too aware of William Shakespeare enthusiastically pandering to the anti-Semitism of his day in this "comedy" while absolving himself with the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. Nevertheless, there's some vintage language and two intriguing characters: Shylock and Portia. Director Daniel Sullivan is fortunate to have terrific performances in those roles from Al Pacino and Lily Rabe. So if you can stand the play's ick factor or are unfamiliar with the work, a trip to the Delacorte is probably in order. I have to believe that Pacino is the reason for this production, and he does not disappoint."
John Simon, Bloomberg: "Pacino's performance is as broad as can be without seeming unskillful. He brings hard-nosed villainy but also the requisite pathos. All kinds of crowd-pleasing rubatos and rallentandos are accompanied by mighty eyeball-rolling...The rest of the cast is uneven. Bill Heck is an acceptable Lorenzo; Byron Jennings, an old hand, a solid, well-spoken Antonio. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a delightful Nerissa and Gerry Bamman a suitable Duke of Venice. Jesse Tyler Ferguson will do with what has been left of Launcelot Gobbo. Jesse L. Martin is a lively Gratiano, only sometimes overdoing it. Lily Rabe's Portia, lacking in charm as the lovely lady of Belmont, is more convincing in her later guise as the male lawyer Balthasar. The miscast Francois Battiste does not sound remotely right as Salerio. Heather Lind is a very pretty but otherwise unpersuasive Jessica. If you enjoy camped-up princes of Morocco and Arragon, then Nyambi Nyambi and Max Wright amply fill the bill. The real disaster, however, is the Bassanio of Hamish Linklater, who flunks out equally on speech, appearance and demeanor...Sullivan must bear part of the blame. A usually able director, he has come up with a few minor bright ideas but is clearly less at ease with Shakespeare than with contemporary plays."